A version of this article was first published in the Harvard Crimson.
Remember when you still thought you'd be president someday? I sure do. Perhaps the single greatest privilege slipped in the envelope with each Harvard acceptance letter is the right to keep dreaming of being special for a few more years than most before succumbing to the pressure to settle for normality.
I'll restrict myself to telling the evolution of one particular species of Harvard freshman, the politico, since that is what I know best from personal experience.
You arrive as a wide-eyed freshman, thinking there's nothing you'd rather do with your life than politics. Your acceptance has confirmed to you that you were endowed at birth with intelligence of world-historical consequence. "Remember me when you run the country," your friends and family tell you before you leave home. Almost all the Harvard grads you've heard of (if you had the good fortune not to go to an elite Northeastern boarding school where everyone goes to the Ivy League and instead had a normal adolescence) went on to be powerful and famous, so there's no doubt that you will as well. You have yet to grasp the startling fact that there are tens of thousands of no-name Harvard grads out there somewhere, quietly plugging away in careers that will never be newsworthy. Political paralysis is nothing; Washington will regain animation based on the sheer force of your arguments. Senator [insert last name here] sure sounds nice, doesn't it?
The first few months on campus put some major dents in your ego. It's likely your first time meeting people your own age as smart as or (gasp) smarter than yourself. It stings a little. Those dreams of future importance begin to deflate. You can't all be president.
A year or two later, the sirens of the exclusive and lucrative banking and consulting worlds begin to call. Everyone who showed up freshman year wanting to change the world is now chasing money, your classmates complain. But money is power in the real world, and going into politics or "public service" immediately after college with no real skills is a waste of time, others respond. As a recruiter from a major consulting firm put it last fall, "If you want to save the world, don't go file papers for some non-profit. Learn how to do things." But you also wonder if anyone persuaded by these arguments actually remembers to try to change the world later in life.
Jadedness sets in. Politics now seems so hard, and for what? Harvard students are risk-averse and idealistic above almost all else, and politics is nothing if not risky and cynical. Oil and water. Your continued employment is based on the whims of a fickle and distracted electorate and on your fealty to the party and donors who fund your campaigns. If you're in the national office, your hopes of making real change are endlessly thwarted by gridlock and polarization. Who wants to make the sacrifice to become a politician only to resign in exasperation over Washington's dysfunction?
David Brooks used the movie Lincoln as a springboard to argue that despite all its warts, politics is still the best game in town for those who want to change the world for the better.
But the Washington defined by the "marriage of high vision and low cunning" that Brooks lauds doesn't exist anymore. Today's 24/7 news cycle would instantly sniff out the dubious tactics used by Abe Lincoln to wrangle together support for the 13th Amendment. The alternative to political shenanigans is (God forbid) public support for smart policies, but that's a nonstarter for now.
Brooks calls politics noble, but the only memorable instance of nobility in American politics in the last decade was the volley of courageous votes for Obamacare cast by politicians (like my own Senator Ben Nelson, who was heckled out of an Omaha restaurant when dining with his wife following his vote) who knew a yes vote would likely mean the end of their political careers but were willing to sacrifice themselves for a cause -- expanded access to health care -- that they believed to be larger than themselves.
After this long evolution to disenchantment, only about one percent of Harvard students end up going into politics after graduation. They are one of the great enigmas of this college. I can't tell whether they are drawn by blind hope, selfish ambition, a sense of purpose, or something else entirely. Whatever it is, they are some of the rare few here who defy the seemingly inexorable pull towards the stable, well-trodden path.
But maybe Brooks is right. Maybe the Lincolns of history and Harvard are those who, despite all of these well-founded concerns, stubbornly plunge headlong into the jungle of politics out of a desire to make a real difference in the world. At this moment and in this country, that idea seems sadly naïve. But at least they get to keep dreaming.